Wynton Marsalis


So much more than exceptional!

© Keith Major

Wynton Marsalis is a praised and loved musician. The smooth, sexy sounds of his trumpet marvel the masses from the jazz high society of New York to the holiday flâneurs in Marciac. He has played for everyone that counts, is asked for everywhere. And he does what he loves most.

From a modest childhood in New Orleans to a globetrotter superstar existence, paralleled with a rich family-life at that, one would say that the musician has had enough to fill a man’s life.

But Wynton Marsalis lets the sensitivity and intelligence that formed his music go way further than the limits of his profession, to form a philosophy of life than can inspire us all.

He would probably say the contrary, though: that it is the understanding of music that has given him an understanding of people and relationships, and that the jazz in itself confers a guide for living a good life.

If sceptic beforehand, when reading his book, Moving to higher ground – How jazz can change your life (Wynton Marsalis, Geoffrey Ward, Random House 2008), this thought actually becomes quite convincing. And seen through the eyes of the musician, life suddenly becomes filled with lyrical possibilities. One is as far away from dry theoretic philosophy as is possible. Simply, music and life exist on the same premises, the very down-to-earth premises that we so easily forget in the middle of our fast and materialistic society.

In the realm of swing, sensuality is king. Not some kind of debauche, escape-from-reality sensuality, but the sensuality that is born out of passion, openness, and integrity. To listen – and act on what you hear, at the right moment. To create a pattern greater than yourself, through the communication with someone else. To transmit – and receive. How simple it seems – and how hard it is! But also beautiful! As says Marsalis “It takes courage and trust to share things (…) I came to realize that each musician opens a chamber in the very center of his being and expresses that center in the uniqueness of his sound (…) That’s why, I came to understand, the scuffling jazzmen around my father were so self-assured. They didn’t mind you knowing who they were”.

He continues: “Jazz allows the musician to instantly communicate exactly how he or she experiences life as it is felt, and the instant honesty of that revelation shocks listeners into sharing and experiencing that feeling, too.”

Marsalis means that, contrary to providing an escape from dealing with the world, as some would believe, music and other art forms engage you in the world.

He knows a lot about dealing with the world, Wynton. Groving up in a unprivileged area, Kenner, near New Orleans, implied dealing with poverty, racism and street power. But if there is no bitterness in his story, neither is there romancing. The recite is crisp, matter-of-fact – and often humourous. Marsalis seems to have a particular talent to go back to childhood and see the things the way he saw them then, with curiosity and astonishment. He talks with ease about his own shortcomings and about the persons that helped him become who he is. There is an enormous sense of legacy, of knowledge and wisdom transmitted – not necessarily wanted in the beginning, by the young and restless musician, but then avidly incorporated in his life and art. The tough subjects are as exposed as the positive ones, treated with honesty and refreshing franchise. Marsalis has the sense of phrase, of exposing complex truth with clever metaphors, which makes the reading all the more joyous.

And if the thesis is convincing in its scope – a large spectre of subjects is treated, from education and creativity to growing old and finding your own voice – it also is in its simplicity. Marsalis leads us from one point to the other through stories of his own past, of  the defining moments when he himself had a revelation and changed the way he looked at life. These are moments that happen to us all, in one way or another, and from which maybe we should have learned more than we did. One feels at home in this narrative.

As a consistent theme through the book is the need to accept complexity – even to embrace it. To accept that people are more than the surface we choose to see, that relationships are both difficult and beautiful, that we need to constantly adapt – but without losing or denigrating ourselves…It’s about adopting the swing of life.

And through this story of life and its conditions, we also get a story of jazz where we almost feel that we get close to the great legends and even, through the chapters defining rhythm and the language of jazz, that we share their secret.

Marsalis definitely seems willing to share his secrets. Repeatedly present at charity manifestations and workshops developing children’s musical skills, it is obvious that the sharing plays its part in enriching his life – and his music. With invigorating gutsy straightforwardness and spirited criticism when needed. His contribution to Spike Lee’s documentary When the levees broke, a requiem in four acts (Spike Lee Film and a 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks Production, 2006) on the hurricane Katrina was factual, telling and balanced but also absolutely right on the spot of the problem. This is a man who walks the walk.

Then again, in a world where social conscience and life philosophy have become common goods, everyone has to make up his own mind as to Marsalis’s sincerity. A very good start could be by listening to his music. Now, that’s jazz!



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